As this whirlwind tour of Civil War-era sites continued, the explorers left Vicksburg, Miss., and drove 70 miles south to the pleasant town of Natchez. Along the route, we stopped at Port Gibson where a battle took place on May 1, 1863, as Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Union army marched northward toward Vicksburg.
Grant had maneuvered past Vicksburg by marching on the west side of the Mississippi River in Louisiana to find an uncontested place to cross into Mississippi. After the Union forces failed in an attempt to cross at Grand Gulf, it achieved success further south at Bruinsburg.
Grant’s forces then marched north and attacked the enemy position at Port Gibson, as the outnumbered Rebels unsuccessfully attempted to stem the tide of the Yankee contingent three times its size. The encounter was costly for both sides. Of the 8,000 Confederate troops, nearly 800 were killed, wounded, or missing, while Grant’s army of 23,000 suffered a total of 875 casualties — before it moved north with Vicksburg as its objective.
Continuing on to Natchez, we found a small community on the Mississippi River that reflects its heritage as a commercial port. The welcoming atmosphere there was a relief following an eerie twilight drive through the desolate forested Mississippi countryside.
A roadside historical marker provided a succinct history of the town first settled by the French in 1716-1729, while growth came with British immigrants from 1763-1779. Cotton and trade were responsible for Natchez’s reputation as the cultural capital of the Old South.
We enjoyed lunch at the Carriage House on the grounds of the historic Stanford House, and toured the town. Outside the Adams County Courthouse is a memorial TO THE BOYS WHO WORE THE GREY, commemorating those who left from Natchez and Adams County, and mustered into Confederate service on Court House Square on April 5, 1861.
Placed there in 1950 by the Natchez Chapter, Daughters of the Confederacy, the melancholy inscription titled, “Lest we forget — lest we forget,” read:
For there’s not a man to wave it, And there’s not a sword to save it, And there’s not one left to lave it, In the blood which heroes gave it.
The highlight of our visit to Natchez was a tour of the Greek Revival Melrose Mansion, a restored antebellum house originally owned by lawyer and wealthy cotton planter John McMurran and maintained by the National Park Service. Melrose looks much the same as it did before the Civil War.
The opulent lifestyle of the Melrose owners was straight out of “Gone With the Wind,” with John and his wife Mary Louisa spending summers in the North or on European travel, and winters in Natchez attending plantation business and entertaining.
Several out buildings included quarters for house slaves, and exhibits about slavery during the period. There also was a kitchen, cisterns for storing water, privy, cottage, stable, carriage house, and a formal garden.
The house tour was eye-opening about Southern customs and the economics of slavery. As in the film featuring the fictional Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, the Civil War changed the McMurran’s way of life forever.
No longer able to maintain the plantation after the war, John and Mary sold Melrose and moved in with her parents. The disillusionment apparently was more than John could bear, because he passed away within a year while Mary lived out the rest of her life in her parents’ home.
In the next segment, the travelers will depart Mississippi, and move on to Port Gibson, La. This was the site of the Confederacy’s last bastion on the Mississippi River.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War;” signed copies available at Bethany Beach Books, Browseabout Books in Rehoboth, and Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.